Despite a regular tendency to vote for third-party leftist candidates for president, I happily voted for Barack Obama in 2008. The defining issue for me was the badly degraded legal milieu of the Oval Office. In the wake of the Bush administration's repeated distortions of the powers of the Executive branch, it's true that nearly any constitutional scholar of Obama's academic background would have gotten my vote.
He could have been a third as eloquent. He could have been in poor physical shape. His campaign slogan could have been "Maybe We Can." None of that mattered to me. After Bush/Cheney's record-breaking abuse of signing statements, grotesque executive orders, pre-emptive military bloodthirst and boundless anti-intellectualism, it was Obama's academic and constitutional bona fides that had my vote.
Call it a bias: I like having scholars around. As a rule, scholars tend to bore MBAs, repel religious fundamentalists and challenge authoritarians, each of whom had appallingly enormous, regrettable influence in the Bush White House.
Of course, presidential politics are not calculated in quite the same way one puts together a guest list for a barbecue. Outcomes can be surprising and not a little disappointing. While to my mind the Obama administration has certainly improved the legal tone of the White House, the sad fact is putting a good notary public in Alberto Gonzales' seat would have accomplished that much.
The question is: Where can we find a Constitutional law professor's worth of difference between GWB and BHO?
Of course there are substantive improvements. On the talent front, Team Obama is made up of far fewer graduates of Pat Robertson's law school. The Supreme Court appointment du jour does not come to us out of the Texas Lottery Commission. What's more, many Bush signing statements have been effectively nullified, and somewhat fewer signing statements than Bush used have been used by Obama thus far.
But troubling legal moves on Obama's part to provide cover to financial giants make it harder and harder to locate the scholar among all of the MBAs.
Consider the influence of business interests in government. If one assumed that these peaked under Bush, they would be off by many, many billion dollars. On a public dollar-grab basis, the financial industry and Goldman Sachs in particular have demonstrated far more overt clout on Pennsylvania Avenue in a few months than even Haliburton could in eight years and two wars. Given that Haliburton's ex-CEO was receiving his paychecks while seated in the VP's chair, that is no mean feat.
The problem, put plainly, is a corporate centrist president and his team's distaste for accountability when it comes to the very industry that punctured the economy. The problem is not imaginary, or partisan. And the problem is so evident that even Congress arose today from its traditional slumber and unambiguously rebuked it.
When I wrote last month that the president's legal idealism as expressed on the campaign trail did not jibe with his June 24th use of a signing statement specifically to avoid accountability to Congress concerning a $100 billion credit line to yet another enormous financial institution -- the International Monetary Fund, I expected and got lots of noise. There were brickbats from the Obama faithful (whose distaste for Executive overstep could certainly be put on hold in this instance). There were cheers from the right wing (whose customary love for corporate welfare could certainly be put on hold in the rush to decry Obama.) This is what outsiders (or, as we are called today, "leftists") can expect.
So it was with some surprise and delight that I read that Congress today voted 429-2 to amend the law in question -- effectively circumventing Obama's evasion of it.
Why now? Why did the House allow hundreds of dubious, abusive Bush signing statements in eight years without such an amendment, but can find its courage and love of accountability today?
Maybe the House wonders where the legal scholar on Pennsylvania Avenue is, too.